Special to No-Till Farmer, featuring excerpts from The Legacy of Herbert Bartz: the No-Tillage Pioneer, by Wilhan Santin, with contributions from Rafael Silvaro, Marie Luise Carolina Bartz, Johann Bartz, Donald Reicosky, Dirceu Gassen, Jônadan Ma and Heidrun Kronenberg
Editor’s Note: A No-Till Farmer Legend, the late Herbert Bartz of Brazil’s northern Parana state is considered the father of no-till in the southern hemisphere. No-Till Farmer has corresponded with his daughter and biologist/earthworm expert Dr. Marie Bartz in recognition of the half-century of no-till in Latin America, which began commercially with her father’s no-till soybeans in 1972, the same year No-Till Farmer was launched. The Brazilian Federation of the No-Tillage System, which Bartz co-founded, also celebrated 30 years in 2022.
If University of Kentucky extensionist Shirley Phillips and farmer Harry Young Jr. were the founding fathers of the commercial no-till movement globally, two German transplants (Bartz and research agronomist Rolf Derpsch) followed their lead. The southern hemisphere’s version of no-till’s “dynamic duo” ushered the practice into Latin America, where it was embraced more vigorously than its own birthplace. In 3 years’ time, it matched in no-till acres what it took 30 years to reach in the U.S. Latin America is the world’s leader in no-till acreage and a global ag power today.
This installment of “Your No-Till History” features excerpted sections from the 2022 edition of the 487-page book, The Legacy of Herbert Bartz: the No-Tillage Pioneer, by Wilhan Santin. Available via Kindle books on Amazon for just $9.99, the book, with myriad contributors, is an exceptional history and biography, and a fascinating and lively read for farmers of any practice.
– Mike Lessiter, President
In October 1971, the 34-year-old Brazilian Herbert Bartz grew concerned after planting 50 hectares of soybeans and waiting days for rain. The innovative farmer in northern Parana (southern Brazil) needed the rain but was also afraid of it.
Facing insomnia ahead of a pending cold front, Bartz, with a pair of rubber boots, an umbrella, a hat and a kerosene lantern, decided to walk his fields.
He was 500 meters from home when the first great lightning came, followed by the roar of thunder. And then the water fell.
He watched his seeds swirling, carried away on the slopes in hundreds of small streams.
“I’ve never walked in the fields in the middle of so much water,” he said. “The impression was of a flood from the end of the world. I came home clearly knowing that with another storm like that one, I would be absolutely bankrupt.”
The next day dawned with a certainty that a new way of farming was needed to survive the great precipitation events. A talk with his father, Arnold, however, concluded with an insistence that farming served only to provide headache and financial loss.
He went to find his friend Rolf Derpsch in Londrina, located less than 20 miles away from his farm. The Germany Development Agency (GTZ) agronomist was increasingly learning from his soil fertility experiments. He proposed that Bartz test a plot of wheat via a new reduced tillage practice.
Realizing that tillage removes the soil’s protective skin, Bartz accepted the challenge of pursuing farming into straw-covered ground. But he didn’t know how to make it work on a large scale; there was no equipment nor knowledge base.
From his conversations with Derpsch on other nations’ research and farmers who were planting without turning the soil, Bartz decided he had to see no-till first-hand.
A No-Till Pilgrimage
Using Derpsch’s contacts, Bartz prepared an itinerary that would take him to three nations in May 1972, where he was convinced he could unearth the solutions for no-tillage.
- Hannover, Germany — an agricultural fair that brought together the most advanced agricultural technology in the world.
- Fernhurst, England — home of agrochemical company Imperial Chemistries Industries (ICI). He’d visit ICI’s experimental station where the herbicide paraquat was being developed and also visit several farms using it.
- Kentucky — to visit Shirley Phillips, the University of Kentucky ag extensionist who was researching no-till. He’d also see the farm plots of pioneer Harry Young Jr., who had 10 years of experience in commercial no-till and who had convinced Allis-Chalmers (A-C) to develop a planter specific to no-till.
“I organized a travel plan, without support from virtually anyone, only ICI logistics,” said Bartz. “I managed to pay the airline tickets in 10 installments. And I already started hearing some saying I was crazy. Many accused Rolf Derpsch of ‘inducing the German to do more madness.’ And he soon made it clear that he was free of responsibility for this initiative and that I was doing it willingly. But I didn’t care what they were saying because no one helped with money.”
Derpsch said, “While most farmers did not care about erosion, thinking that the deep purple land would allow them to accept soil losses, Bartz knew the catastrophe had to be stopped. That’s what set him apart and moved him. That’s why he traveled without money nor many prospects.”
He found many machine innovations in Germany, but none suitable for erosion control. He was well-received in England, but he didn’t like seeing the straw burned after harvest and without cover on the soil, which was a must for the rainfalls in Brazil.
With some “dismay and disappointment,” he left Europe to learn about a pioneering experience in the U.S. A propeller plane took him from New York to Lexington, Ky., where he’d meet Phillips.
Phillips was happy to share his findings. Bartz stayed at his home, and the next morning, they visited Harry Young Jr..
At 10 a.m. they arrived at the Young farm in Herndon, Ky. Bartz immediately noticed the cover on the soil.
“According to the Brazilian Federation of No-Tillage and Irrigation, Herbert Bartz’s neighbors complained that he’d gone mad with his no-till planting in 1972. Having imported an Allis-Chalmers no-till planter from the U.S. on his own, the federal authorities seized all the soybean produced in his first harvest due to the unprecedented no-till practice.…”
“Everything seemed like a miracle to me,” said Bartz. “I hardly believed it.”
Young arrived by tractor and stopped to visit the pair. He’d planned to give Bartz an hour of time before returning to his chores. But the dialog prompted him to leave it for the next day. Young took the visitor to his neighbors. No one could fathom the rains Bartz dealt with.
Bartz said he was “nearly levitating” by all he saw and heard.
“It was like the biblical moment when Saul became Paul,” he said. “I invited them to a restaurant to eat a nice barbecue and have a bottle of wine because I thought the moment was memorable. I had $600 in my pocket, and the bill was almost $300. I was still happy.”
Phillips and Young Jr. wrote a letter to A-C, stressing that the Brazilian was eager to start no-tilling in Brazil. They encouraged the OEM to sell him a planter with fair payment terms.
Excited, with the recommendation in his hands, Bartz concluded he had just enough money to fly to A-C’s factory near Milwaukee.
The letter from his new American friends opened the doors, and he managed to order a no-till planter for $8,000 (triple-disc, 8 rows with herbicide tanks and spray nozzles) without any down payment.
“When I got to the São Paulo airport, I had $10 in my pocket,” he said. “I returned home without money, with the 10 installments of the airfare to pay and the commitment to arrange money for the planter.”
Bartz was euphoric. He also convinced another farmer to no-till (and A-C to provide the equipment), so two machines would be shipped from Wisconsin. This arrangement also secured him financing, albeit at a 30% rate.
Hard Times: 1972
Bartz had bet on a good wheat harvest to address part of the financial woes he’d accumulated. As the book states, “The farm was mortgaged for the payment of the silos; the installments of the airfares would be due soon; it was necessary to pay off the financing made for the fertilization of wheat; and 99% of the stored soybeans would go to the banks if the payment of the loans for which the planter was guaranteed was not honored.”
Upon his return from the U.S., Bartz found his fields full of beautiful, vigorous wheat, about to enter the grain-filling phase. He was eager to start planning for the arrival of the A-C planter that would allow him to no-till the following year.
But a stretch of bad news soon arrived. The Brazilian government applied an 80% import tax on the machine citing “similar national products.” This jumped the cost of the planter from $8,800 to $17,000.
And everything got worse in the early hours of July 15. A -22 Fahrenheit frost decimated the entire 280 acres Bartz had planted. After scouting his fields with the realization that all was lost, he found his father at his home. Arnold told his son that the power of attorney, which had allowed him to win bank financing, was being canceled. The son was chasing too many follies and would jeopardize the family’s estate, thought his father.
“I was in a state of utter discouragement,” Bartz said. “But it was no use crying or despairing. Since the planter was already on its way, I’d start in 1972. And I put up for sale all the machinery I had to raise some money.”
Luckily, his inventory of a CBT tractor, a Fiat, a Ford Major, a Claas harvester, a 7-disc plow and a 64-foot disc harrow fetched $120,000 from a single buyer.
With the cash to maneuver and a sale of all the soybean seeds in his silos, he was acquired land of his own. And without any other equipment, he financed a Massey Ferguson tractor to pull his new planter.
Latin America’s First No-Till
Until 1972, no machine was capable of commercially viable no-till planting. As the book states, “Everything would begin to change on October 23, 1972, when Bartz put the A-C planter on the field.”
Bartz’s A-C planter arrived in September in crates. Piece by piece, Bartz and an employee assembled it with the excitement of a child with a new puzzle. It had to succeed. Without any tillage tools following the sell-off, it was “no-till or bust” on all 220 hectares.
THREE NO-TILL LEGENDS. From left are three of Latin America’s No-Till Farmer Legends: Ademir Calegari, Rolf Derpsch and Herbert Bartz at the 2011 World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in Brisbane, Australia. Photo: Marie Bartz
For the preparation of the field, the weeds were killed with paraquat plus 2,4-D. He hitched the planter to the tractor and sowed his soybeans through the straw of wheat and Brachiaria, which stood 1 meter high. For farmers accustomed to plowing, harrowing and planting bare land, it was a shock to see one sowing in the middle of the bush.
His neighbor, Domingos Tessaro, passing in a Volkswagen Beetle, stopped to see Bartz’s first no-till planting. He shook his head and abruptly left, certain that Bartz, whose credit and standing he’d personally vouched for, had freaked out.
But Bartz had to continue; he no longer owned any conventional planting equipment.
Bartz was the first farmer to apply no-till technology in Brazil and Latin America and use it continuously, said Derpsch. The other farmer on the A-C planter deal abandoned the system a few years later due to the weed problems.
Word spread about this man farming without the plow, and crowds gathered to see, spy and question. Before long, everyone had heard of the “Crazy German of Rolândia.”
Bartz’s brother Ulrich recalls, “When Herbert came up with this no-till story, I had no doubt it was the right way. I was a witness to how much he had researched, read and tried solutions to end erosion, and produce more fertile soil.
“Many thought he’d snapped and decided to plant without tilling overnight. I knew it wasn’t any of that. I also knew that it would not be easy to participate in the paradigm shift. But I took on the challenge and embarked with him on what many thought was madness.”
From then on, the brothers and the other pioneering farmers in Latin America would write new chapters of no-till’s story based on inventiveness, patience with obstacles that arose every day and ignoring the doubters.
Machines, implements, research and knowledge about the new technique were lacking, something that Bartz’s curiosity and diligence would address.
Much like how Young convinced A-C to bring a solution, so did Bartz. He helped develop the UK-based Rotacaster planter as well as Jacto’s self-propelled (SP) sprayers, which was inspired by Bartz’s tractor modification called the “grasshopper.” Jacto sent an ag technician, Jose Egberto de Freitas, to live with Bartz to learn, and he returned determined to build a SP sprayer.
Bartz’s reputation as “crazy” was not short-lived, recalls Derpsch.
“It would remain a long time, until most understood that change was inevitable,” Derpsch said. “Both of us were called crazy, still years later. No-till goes into opening people’s prejudices. Plowing the soil had been carried out since biblical times; we couldn’t imagine that plowing could be left out. No-tillage is a total paradigm shift, but the human being does not like to change and prefers to continue doing what he always did or what he knows.”
Bartz’s successes began to be recognized. A 1974 local news article summarized how he reduced his tractor hours from 800 to just 154 hours with no-till. This success would be paramount in farmers surviving the Oil Crisis that arrived that same year.
Meet Latin America’s ‘Dynamic Duo’
HIGHEST HONORS. Dr. Marie Bartz presented the Brazilian No-Till Federation’s Herbert Bartz Medal of Honor to Rolf Derpsch at his home in Germany in December 2022. “Their partnership was fundamental and showed the importance of the close bond between farmers and research as the driving force for the success and leverage of the adoption of no-till,” says Bartz of her father’s friend and colleague. Photo: Susanne Seitz
Herbert Bartz. Born in Brazil in 1937, to the son of German immigrants, Bartz spent his youth in war-torn Germany, When he returned to Brazil in 1960 after his university studies, he settled in Rolândia to farm alongside his father and brothers.
His ag career started out in the conventional way. But in 1972, Bartz carried out the first on-farm tests of no-till in Brazil, made possible through the loan of a German-manufactured Hassia no-till planter from Rolf Derpsch of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The plot convinced Bartz of no-till’s potential, but he also realized what he didn’t know about planting into a straw mulch. It would lead to his tireless research with Derpsch.
In his first years of no-till, Bartz experienced serious problems with weed control and had to complement the pre-plant desiccation with hand hoeing and in-row spraying of paraquat. This caused stem lesions and secondary fungal attacks resulting in yield losses. From 1972-1975, soybean yields dropped 40%.
Just when Bartz was considering a return to conventional tillage, a new generation of no-till herbicides debuted. The first post-planting and preemergence herbicides (1975-76) rebounded his soybean yields and brought better soil mulch conditions due to the heavy crop residues. Yet herbicide effectiveness was hampered by adsorption to the organic matter on the soil surface. The real advance came in 1977 with a third generation post-emergent selective herbicide from Paraguay.
Eventually, his success was fundamental in convincing researchers that no-till farming was feasible. He argued for the import of no-till planters from the UK and U.S. The first private sector research contract with ICI was signed in 1977, while the GTZ was also generating valuable information on cover crops. This, combined with the new post-emergent herbicides, gave the no-till rotations definitive form and viability.
With the influence of Bartz, farmers who had started no-tilling in 1976 stimulated the private sector and began to fund research. Among the successes was low-volume spraying techniques introduced by Bartz to get higher herbicide efficiency and reduce weed control costs.
“The Transformation of Agriculture in Brazil Through Development and Adoption of Zero Tillage Conservation Agriculture,” P.L. de Freitas and J.N. Landers, International Soil and Water Conservation Research, 2014
Rolf Derpsch. In 1969, researchers at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul imported a Buffalo seeder from the U.S. to attempt no-till on 1 hectare of sorghum. Shortly thereafter, the machine was destroyed in a fire, not to be pursued again.
In the North of Paraná, in the early 1970s, Rolf Derpsch, a Chilean agronomist of German parents, and his staff at the Southern Agricultural Research Institute advanced studies and attempts with experimental machines to optimize no-till to combat soil erosion. Derpsch was working in partnership with the GTZ, which assisted German immigrants with ag projects.
He received English journals about alternatives to conventional tillage. As he mastered the language, he wrote letters to the authors seeking additional information. One letter at a time, he was forming an informational exchange, which later included the revolutionary telefax, with experts around the world. Bartz, already a pioneer in reduced tillage, relied on Derpsch’s awareness of these ag practices.
In 1972, Derpsch had accompanied Ohio State University’s Dr. Glover Triplett in Paraná to help spread no-till among farmers. He attended a U.S. no-till conference in 1973 that introduced him to No-Till Farmer Legends Shirley Phillips and Harry Young, Jr., who autographed their No-Till Farming book for him.
According to Dr. Marie Bartz, Herbert’s daughter and scientist, Derpsch is one of the fathers of cover crops and the consolidation of the concept of crop rotations. His inspired pupils included the likes of Ademir Calegari, another No-Till Farmer Legend.
In the mid-1980s, Derpsch moved to Paraguay to start new projects with the Ministry of Agriculture. Still active at 85, Derpsch is a frequent email contributor to the No-Till Farmer staff.
The No-Till History Series, appearing throughout 2023, is supported by Montag Mfg. For more historical content, including video/multimedia, visit www.No-TillFarmer.com/historyseries.